Theo van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren. Contra-Construction Project (Axonometric). 1923

Theo van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren Contra-Construction Project (Axonometric) 1923

  • Not on view

Van Doesburg, a painter, writer, editor, and architect, was a founder and driving force behind the de Stijl movement, which was centered in the Netherlands in the late 1910s and early ’20s. Van Eesteren, an architect, joined the group in 1922. In the aftermath of World War I, artists and others contributing to van Doesburg’s periodical, De Stijl, took as their goal the creation a harmonic new order. They attempted to construct a utopian solidarity between art and life under the influence of artist Piet Mondrian’s early theories of Neo-Plasticism, which proposed that the essence of both the imagined and the seen world could be conveyed only through a logical system of abstraction based on the line, square, and rectangle and the primary colors plus black and white.

According to van Doesburg, architecture had to be approached in an entirely new way, which would ultimately, he believed, give rise to a universal aggregate of easel painting, sculpture, and architecture. As suggested by this axonometric drawing for a private house that was never built, architecture, enlivened by flat colors, was to be economical and dynamic, with planar elements balanced asymmetrically around an open core. Such structures would allow the modern individual to achieve harmony with his or her surroundings.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

Van Doesburg understood modern architecture and modern painting as complementary, arguing that the two media had something basic in common: the flat plane. He believed that painting could serve as a laboratory for testing architectural ideas. This work in gouache was not intended as a plan for a specific building but as abstract explorations of spatial relationships. Van Doesburg began with plans for private houses that he had developed with the architect Cornelis van Eesteren. Then he eliminated the signs of functional architecture: doors, windows, and roof are all absent, and no directional cues distinguish front from back. Instead, the structure floats freely in space and time.

Gallery label from Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013.

With the zeal of a crusader, Theo van Doesburg, the prolific writer, painter, and cofounder of the avant-garde Dutch movement de Stijl, promoted a new order uniting art and life. In his utopian quest for a universal ideal, cleansed of social and artistic conventions but not without moral and spiritual dimensions, van Doesburg predicated a formal language of abstraction on the rectangle, primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), and asymmetrically balanced compositions. To suggest what a de Stijl environment might look like, van Doesburg enlisted the assistance of the architect Cornelis van Eesteren. In 1923 the two men mounted a landmark exhibition at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie L'Effort Moderne in Paris. This so-called "Contra-Construction" was among the works exhibited.

The Contra-Construction is not a study for a specific building but a meditation on a new kind of architectural space and structure. Serving as a demonstration of the ideas in the artists' manifestos, the composition-an axonometric placed diagonally on the paper-is key to understanding their aims. The construction seems to float on the sheet, divorced from time or place. The high vantage point lets us see many sides at once, but we have no clear understanding of front, side, or back, or of inside and out. Horizontal and vertical planes define a complex of asymmetrical volumes around a central open core. Color is a constructive element, applied to elements running the height, length, and width of the construction. The planes have an atectonic character, being divorced from a supporting function. The spatial relations and sense of freedom in the composition underscore van Doesburg's overarching goal: to liberate humanity from material things through a new form of modernism.

Publication excerpt from an essay by Peter Reed, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 56-57.
Gouache on lithograph
22 1/2 x 22 1/2" (57.2 x 57.2 cm)
Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.
Object number
Architecture and Design

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